''What's black and white and read all over?'' asks the old children's riddle. ''Newspapers, of course!'' The children in Donna MacGregor's classroom know the answer from their own experience. Newspapers are the prime materials used in the remedial reading program Mrs. MacGregor developed nearly 15 years ago.
A reading specialist and resource teacher at Mira Loma Elementary School in San Francisco, she reads her morning newspaper with scissors in her hand. ''I clip headlines, news photos, and articles I think will interest my children. That way I have fresh material for my classes every day.''
She puts a short headline on each desk so every child has something he can read easily as soon as he comes in. ''Headlines are capsule sentences,'' she points out, ''and it helps to begin the lesson with an immediate success.''
Later she reads the class one of the newspaper stories and helps it dictate a two- or three-sentence summary which she prints on large sheets of paper and hangs in front of the room. As the bulletin board becomes crowded, stories are moved into the hall for sharing or are collected into reference books that students use to prepare written or oral reports or as springboards to library research. At the end of the year classes vote on the best stories to present for a school program.
''That's quite an achievement for children who began the year at the lowest reading levels!'' Mrs. MacGregor exclaims.
Students like the newspaper because it applies to them, she says, and it has enough variety to appeal to each child's interests. ''All children are interested in news - in what's going on around them, especially when it's something that affects their lives and is presented at their level. They can discuss it at school. It becomes meaningful to them, and they can go home and talk to their parents about it. News is important, and so this gives them status and it's good for their morale.''
Children in these classes find stories about local events and places particularly appealing and often persuade their parents to take them somewhere they have read about in class.
Sometimes there are unexpected ''side effects'' from these newspaper-based lessons. A fourth-grade girl who sat in the class for three months completely unresponsive picked up a magazine one day and started reading out loud.
This was the first sign that she had been absorbing the lessons right along, and - even more startling - it was the first the school realized that she was not retarded.
Children in Mrs. MacGregor's classes like them so much that other children now want to get in. ''Sometimes in the schoolyard a child will come up to me with a smile and say, 'Mrs. MacGregor, I think maybe I'm having some problems with my reading,'' she reports with a chuckle. ''Do you think I can get into your newspaper class?' ''
Such enthusiasm isn't confined to the elementary grades. Students in Glada Thrall's English classes at Milliken High School in Long Beach, Calif., learned to expect lively lessons in literature, vocabulary, grammar, and composition when Mrs. Thrall drew upon her enormous file of newspaper clippings for current examples.
''I have a thick file labeled 'Truth stranger than fiction' with which to answer the cries of the 'yeah-buts.' You know, the alert skeptics who come up with yeah-but when things ring a little phony to them. You love them but you have to be prepared for them. For instance, 'The Mayor of Casterbridge,' by Thomas Hardy, opens with the protagonist, while drunk, selling his wife and child. The yeah-but crowd used to come up with 'Yeah, but nobody ever sold his wife and kids.' I have three different news stories to prove that the attempt is still made - and the offenders weren't even drunk.''
Comics and cartoons are another source Mrs. Thrall has used often. ''One of my favorites shows Dennis the Menace hiding in a tree with his friend Margaret obviously harassing him from below. Dennis is saying, 'Some days it doesn't pay to be me.' Many a fruitful discussion and thoughtful essay have come from that expression of the human predicament!''
Although Mrs. Thrall - like Mrs. MacGregor - reads her newspaper with scissors in hand, she favors assignments that encourage students to read and clip by themselves.
''One year I had three classes in 'Old Testament as Literature,' with kids representing a cross section of ability and interests and including every religious belief - and disbelief. Naturally, I required a notebook of clippings, and the Bible really came alive for these students as they found articles on biblical plants, archaeological discoveries, and literary references in the daily paper. Some students came up with as many as 35 clippings, enlisting friends, family, and neighbors to help them in their search.''
Mrs. Thrall's enthusiasm is contagious, as many of her fellow teachers have found. Now retired and living in Colorado, she is already looking for ways to ''spread the word.'' As a concerned citizen, she says that ''the need to study the newspaper seems imperative when we realize that for many of our students it will be their main source of reading throughout their adult lives.''
This concern is shared by Dr. John Gothberg, professor of mass communication at California State University, Hayward. In his Newspaper-in-Education courses at Hayward and Sonoma State College he encourages teachers to develop classroom activities that emphasize critical thinking. Students analyze news article for sources, attribution, and balance, editorials for facts and opinions, and advertising for word usage and propaganda techniques.
Teachers who have taken his courses in the last 15 years represent such diverse subjects as driver education, auto shop, business, foreign language, music, and physical education, as well as the mainstream areas of language arts, social studies, science, and math.
The newspaper is successful as a classroom resource, Dr. Gothberg believes, because it supplies motivation for learning. ''It breaks down the barrier between the classroom and the rest of the world. It deals with real events, and its timeliness makes it a 'living textbook' - easily available and inexpensive.''
And that is another value of using newspapers for learning, Mrs. MacGregor is quick to point out. ''Parents can use it right at home to help their children do better at school.''
She advises parents to look through their newspapers with their children, discussing the pictures, finding new words, and reading short articles together. ''Parents love it!'' she says. And - judging by the response - children do, too.